Monthly Archives: December 2008

December 21, 2008

10. Walkabout (1971)

directed by Nicolas Roeg
screenplay by Edward Bond
after the novel by James Vance Marshall (pseud. for Donald G. Payne) (1959, originally published as The Children)

Criterion Collection #10.

A montage set to blissful music that cuts directly from a naked teenage girl to the fat bubbling up through the skin of a roasting lizard would be strong stuff even if it didn’t really mean it. But this movie really means it. This movie is strong stuff.

Yes, this movie is a noble-savage, return-to-Eden, industrial-civilization-makes-us-crazy type of movie. If you are of the mind that nobody selling anything of the sort should be given credence, you might not have patience for it. I am very much cynical about fantasies of reversion, and feel an instinctive defensiveness on behalf of industrial civilization when its values are snidely impugned. It’s easy to knock industrial civilization when you’re just sitting around with a beer – i.e. when you don’t really mean it – and that irritates me. But like I said, this movie really means it. It is not a hippie fantasy, nor does it actually espouse any kind of revolutionary shift in human behavior – it knows that’s impossible. It simply expresses a deep nostalgia for, and awareness of – or nostalgia for awareness of – man’s actual place in the violent, indifferent order of the cosmos. I can get behind that. And the movie put me behind it.

Several times I thought of the Camus I’ve read (The Stranger and The Plague) – the method was to make absurd anything that wasn’t “the truth,” simply by reminding us of the truth. Here, “the truth” was a sort of “living desert” nature documentary footage, which is heightened yet understated. Just like nature itself. It includes some unnerving stuff – like, yes, an incredible swarm of maggots devouring a carcass – and then other stuff that is simply handled so well that it becomes unnerving. Everything on the screen is either decaying, devouring, or defending itself.

Actually, to get back to the comment about nostalgia, I see the movie as being built on the tug of opposed nostalgias, or at least constructed so that you are able to sympathize with either pull, according to your personal inclination. The girl (who is the real protagonist of the movie) is never so enamored of the state of nature that she considers giving up civilization, but once she gets home, she’s no longer satisfied there either. The Aborigine boy who represents the state of nature is ruined by his desire, but inability, to connect with this girl, who I take to represent, in relation to him, the allure of a world ordered by man. The tragedy in the movie is not that modern man isn’t primitive anymore; it’s that the two ways of being cannot understand each other or strike any lasting compromise. In Roger Ebert’s essay, included in the box, he says that he sees the film as being about the failure of communication, which I suppose I agree with, but principally in terms of honest communication between the modern and the primitive within the soul of mankind. The girl comes off as reasonably sensitive and reasonably intelligent, but ultimately too reliant on standard proprieties to comprehend “the truth”; this is modern man. My comment about wanting to warn the people in A Night to Remember that they were being much too British, in light of nature’s indifference to their deaths, was here more or less the point of the movie.

That this essentially philosophical material works at all is a testament to craftsmanship; all the moreso that it works rather well. I have very great respect for Nicolas Roeg for pulling this off. Having this movie described to you would be absolutely and completely unlike watching it. That is a sign that poetry and craft are crucial to a work. It’s not always necessarily a compliment. In this case it’s a compliment.

The only Nicolas Roeg movie I’d seen prior to this was The Witches. I’m now very interested, if a bit nervous, to see his other movies.

The photography is lovely.

Many critics, I see, have talked about the mysterious aura about the film, but none of them have addressed something so I want to come out and say it. I think the specific casting of Jenny Agutter has a lot to do with the distinctive atmosphere. Her prettiness is of a particular type that is somehow reminiscent of the girls one is interested in at a distance in middle school. She doesn’t look at all glamorous, nor does she look ordinary; she is blankly, tentatively pretty. Also, the actress herself has clearly and remarkably been caught on film at exactly the moment of life being portrayed: newly aware of the potential to be a grown-up but not sure what to think of it. I see that some people have criticized the movie for leering at her, but I think that’s an important part of what’s at work. Lots of guys on the internet are not at all shy about expressing their lust for young Jenny Agutter, but they all seem to think it’s something they’re sneaking in under the table, and that maybe Nicolas Roeg was too. None of them seem to recognize that the tension of deciding whether you ought to think of her as a hot girl or not is an important (and presumably intentional) part of the movie. For me, a good part of the success of the film had to do with its ability, through her, to bring back memories of a certain time of life, a time at which the question of what it meant to be a person was vitally open. This may only be work for men. Though I would think that women could recognize themselves in her tentative self-possession, and be brought back to the same set of memories. Any thoughts, women who’ve seen Walkabout?

So here’s the key track from John Barry’s score, the central montage described above, which happens to be the only piece of music without dialogue over it in the film. The end credits track is essentially the same material, anyway. This track (called “Back to Nature” on the soundtrack LP) does have sound effects, I’m afraid, and to give you the album version would be to break my pattern of using rips directly from the film, so you have to live with the sounds of kangaroos being clubbed to death and lizards being impaled. I think the foley work in this film was fantastic and evocative, so it’s fitting that you should get a little of it here.

Without the movie, this piece of music falls easily into a certain category of 70s pseudo-classical silky Hollywood lovey-dovey junk, and doesn’t seem to have a lot going for it. But once the images have been seen, the music seems to soak up their conceptual essence; I’ve come to really like it. It’s like tunes I hear in dreams but then can’t successfully recreate, because the point wasn’t the music itself, it was the strangeness that infused it. The dreamy, spacey feel of the music in a lot of “normal” 70s movies – music that is, to me, often unintentionally unnerving and thus a little icky – here finds its philosophical match. This time, for once, the sounds of otherworldly rapture aren’t supposed to be comfortable or easy to take; their sleazy frictionless quality becomes part of the effect rather than just tacky period ambiance.

The whole film, I suppose, is similarly an honest, intellectually whole incarnation of 70s flakiness. I felt myself drawn inside a feeling that was familiar but usually easy to dismiss as having been an intellectual/aesthetic fad. Perhaps this movie was the source and I have only known the imitators; perhaps every muddled, superficial fashion of a period stems from a charismatic source that will age better than its offspring. Perhaps something becomes “dated” in inverse proportion to how intellectually whole it is. The culture of every age has its characteristic points of philosophical laziness; the objects that age poorly are those that obliviously embrace that laziness, which becomes glaring and obvious when the philosophical wind changes. But thoughtful work will survive no matter how of its time it seems. The great novels of the 19th century are still going strong despite being so 19th-century, whereas the advertisements, the jokes, the pulp of the 19th century all seem irredeemably quaint.

This movie was very 70s but it was not quaint.

I think I respond well to things that seem have had their own thoughts, but not to things that seem to simply be relaying received thoughts. Even if they’re the same thoughts.

The essentially sympathetic thing in art is the having of ideas, not ideas themselves.

Things that I feel obligated to mention to maintain consistency with other entries:
1. The commentary (Nicolas Roeg and Jenny Agutter, separately) is well worth hearing even if it’s not consistently interesting, for exposure to the two personalities, both of which are very much part of the film itself.
2. A soundtrack was released on LP but never yet reissued on CD.

Having drawn a connection to A Night to Remember, I’m inspired to note the recurring themes in the Criterion Collection thus far. A little look back at the first ten selections.

Grand Illusion, A Night to Remember, and Walkabout are all about disillusionment with civilization’s received wisdom; about the ways that we make an ASS out of U and MANKIND. They all practice, as I said, some form of Camus-style absurdism.

Amarcord and The 400 Blows are both about childhood, psychological coming-of-age, and the memory thereof. If you want to psychoanalyze, Beauty and the Beast is sort of a failed version of the same, complete with a spitefully phony “maturation” at the end, to complete the impression that the whole thing took place in the imagination of a spoiled child. At any rate, it’s sort of an insincere exhibit B in the “memories of childhood” category.

Seven Samurai, The Killer, and Hard Boiled were all about morality, about codes, compromises, and the ethical ambitions and struggles of individuals in relation to groups. But these issues were deeply deeply stylized. I personally feel pretty cynical about the simple way that the phenomenon of “morality” is often depicted – up to and including the noir attitude that a less-than-black-and-white “morality” is something really grim and mature. The fact that all the movies here selling that line were actually about, you know, exciting fights and stuff, feeds my cynicism. They were also all Asian, so, as I said a few entries ago, who knows.

If you want to stand even further back, all three of the thematic groupings above could be characterized as being about a loss of innocence/loss of faith. In pretty much all of the movies thus far, I could identify a loss of faith at play.* And that’s the ur-story of the 20th century, right? You know, I hate it when cultural critics talk this way, but I’ve worked myself up to it and I can see what they’re saying. Or, in this case, what I’m saying.

Of course, there is one odd man out here that I’ve been avoiding. The Lady Vanishes is really and truly about a Lady Vanishing. Not coincidentally, it is probably the only one of these movies I would have liked as a kid.


No, just kidding.

Er, I guess.

* In Beauty and the Beast, it takes place in kitschy retrograde.

That was supposed to be the end of this entry except it occurs to me now, later, that The Lady Vanishes actually fits rather well into the “don’t be so sure, civilized man!” category, considering its rather explicit message that foolish British complacency is oblivious to nasty realities. Its characters, traveling through political danger zones in the seeming safety of their luxurious train, need to be seriously shaken before they see that they are not immune to the outer world, and in the end find themselves holed up in the compromised train, fighting for their lives. It has lots in common with A Night to Remember. I missed that when I did the round-up above, I guess, because I would have understood it as a kid, free of “meanings.”

December 21, 2008

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), Op. 59
Kömodie für Musik in three acts
libretto by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (1874-1929)
composed: 1909-10 (age 45-46)
first performance: Königliches Opernhaus, Dresden, January 26, 1911 (Margarethe Siems (Marschallin), Karl Perron (Ochs), Eva van der Osten (Octavian), Minnie Nast (Sophie), Dresden Opera/Ernst von Schuch)

And there they are. If you can’t read those little captions, that’s Strauss seated at center, Hoffmannsthal with moustache behind him, Schuch seated at right, and then a bunch of other guys. Photo taken on the day of the dress rehearsal, I believe.

429. #10.

I have many many serious reservations about this work, but the fact must be faced that Richard Strauss was some kind of a genius. A genius of what, exactly? Hard to say. Not any of the things that people generally want to be geniuses of – but a genius of something.

Going through this score is like going through computer code. I marveled at the fluency of the programmer. Strauss once bragged that his skill at musical illustration was such that he could compose a knife and fork and differentiate them. I don’t doubt it. Representational conceits that for other composers would sustain whole works are here casually tossed off and discarded after a single use; he truly doesn’t care. He’s got a million more where that came from.

In another knife-related comment, Strauss said that setting the text of Rosenkavalier was for him “like spreading butter.” The very image of fluency – but what makes his spreading so amazing is how thick this butter is. Every bar in this massive score – and there are several thousand of them – is a display of cleverness. Not just of wit, but of an opulent, overabundant cleverness; of one cleverness wedded to another cleverness through a third feat of cleverness, and so on. Strauss’s scores are like dripping palaces of cleverness.

Which takes me to the flip side: what every bar of this opera is not a display of is taste. I’m not talking about the fact that the overture depicts the leads having sex, with remarkable specificity (one can, if one wishes, clearly tell the knife from the fork). That kind of breach of taste doesn’t bother me at all; I actually love that part. What I’m talking about is the lack of proportion and perspective. It seems clear to me that the libretto was constructed with ample consideration for pacing, for the subtleties of drama as they would be experienced on the audience’s time scale, but that the score wasn’t. Strauss seems to have worked his way through the text, spreading his lavish butter as he went, trusting that it would all add up. But even over the course of a single chunk of a single scene, it often doesn’t add up. Or rather, it adds up to too much. Too much business. Too many footnotes per page. High cholesterol, gotta cut back. That the opera is typically done with cuts – fairly hefty ones – reflects awareness of the problem on the part of opera-land, but the problem is too pervasive to be nip-and-tucked away.

Strauss is brilliant at the vertical, boorish about the horizontal. There, I figured it out. That’s what he is a genius at: the vertical. Every image is finessed to perfection, every character and relationship and nuance and color of a moment somehow condensed and turned into a neat little contraption. Unfortunately, listening to a performance is a bit like being barraged with neat little contraptions; one wants to protect one’s head.

Is all that cleverness supposed to be subliminal or front-and-center? There’s just no winning this one – if I’m expected to watch for the story and just be buoyed along on the music, it’s much too busy, aggressive, and distracting. If, on the other hand, I’m supposed to notice and appreciate all the intricacies, there’s just too much to take in at the speed of performance. One way or the other, the music has cleverness to spare, and it should have been spared.

As with a lot of Late Romantic music, much of the drama in the score sounds to me like silly putty being stretched gooily and then snapped clean, in violent and endless alternation. And a three-and-a-half hour listening experience of random silly putty is not a gratifying one. There’s nothing gooey on the page or in Herr Strauss’s magical contraption workshop, but it comes out awfully gooey in practice – it’s the sound of details that were composed on the wrong scale, being wrung out in real time.

Film composers tend to deprecate “Mickey-Mousing,” because it glorifies the surface rather than the substance, which, in all but the most comic-balletic cases, is unflattering and unhelpful. Strauss steamrolls his butter right over that principle. It’s all Mickey-Mousing. Even when he’s not Mickey-Mousing the action, he’s still Mickey-Mousing the thoughts, Mickey-Mousing the meaning. He obviously feels things and knows things about the world, and he can write music to jerk your tears, but the interface between those two capacities is pure Mouse.

Exempli gratia. At the very beginning, after some confused sweet nothings in bed with the Field Marshal’s wife, our young hero Octavian whines that he doesn’t want it to be daytime yet, and shuts the blinds in protest. This little moment doesn’t mean anything more than that in itself – it’s just a part of the “morning after” scene. In reality, or in any movie or play, the line in question (“Why does there have to be day? In the day you belong to everyone, instead of just to me. That window needs to be closed”) would probably be delivered with an understated humor. Or it would be, at most, mock-whiny, mock-frustrated, a moment of playacting in the middle of the scene’s deeper flow. What then does Richard Strauss do? He sets this line as a series of high-pitched, trumpet-like outbursts for the singer (to remind us that this is our impetuous, childish young hero), over a complicated accompaniment made up of several layers of signifiers: a horn call sounding a note of dismay and agitation (i.e. Octavian’s displeasure); a phrase from the preceding love music (i.e. the intimate scene that is being interrupted); and a cacophony of literal birdcalls in the woodwinds (i.e. the undesired morning outside the window). At the moment that Octavian declares his intention to shut the window, there is a surprise harmonic shift, a sung high G, the sudden entrance of basses and bassoons, and a tremolo chord in the strings; in other words: big drama. For what, Richard? He is shutting the window! You picked all the wrong stuff. Everything you composed into the moment was not only already in the libretto but was already visible and audible on stage. It’s exactly the stuff we don’t need music about. This isn’t even music for the cartoon version — even Mickey Mouse was occasionally allowed to decide to close a window independently from the tyranny of the underscore — this is the music for the radio play version. For a radio play with no sound effects. And, if possible, no actors. This is music to complement nothing; it does not play well with others.

Strauss has composed everything but the drama. The kitchen sink he has. In fact the kitchen sink was his top priority.

He did subtitle it as a “Comedy for Music,” so maybe he was acknowledging his selfishness. It’s for music more than it’s for you.

As for the libretto: on the one hand, it’s a completely mannered display of pretentious nostalgic fondness for things I do not personally love – it is an inbred opera “about” Mozart operas, for rich people who like stories about richer people. It’s purposefully, knowingly full of all that 18th-century crap – wigs and slave boys and stockings and titles and so on and so on. In fact, Hoffmannsthal goes so far as to invent some 18th-century crap that never existed. The whole concept of the “Rosenkavalier” (a noble messenger who presents a bride-to-be with a traditional, ceremonial silver rose) – it’s something he concocted to be just as sissified and twee (and, to the intended audience, delicious) as all the historical crap. Also, apparently, the German of the libretto is fantasy-antiquated in a way that he invented. The opera is “retro,” but it is not a pastiche, and it’s not ironic, and it’s not simply nostalgic or kitschy, and it’s certainly not “post-modern” – Hoffmannsthal has some other kind of attitude toward all this stuff. And though that attitude is a little self-congratulatory and too-clever (like the music), I can’t deny that it is, at least, genuinely sophisticated and intelligent. It’s just not my silver-edged, gilded white china cup of tea.

Neither is it my cup of tea that the young hero is played by a woman wearing the proverbial trousers. This choice is either an affectation, linking us back to the grand tradition of ridiculous bent-gender stuff in operas, or an aesthetic choice made by people for whom the sound of several high female voices intertwining is so exquisite that they’re willing to suspend all sorts of disbelief to get it. I am not such a person. The transcendently beautiful finale yada yada yada doesn’t do a lot for me because, though the orchestra is playing something pretty, it’s sort of ruined by all those high voices going at once! Not the most pleasant sound. I don’t understand opera-land’s fixation on people singing high notes. To me, highness of sing doesn’t correspond in any way to intensity of emotion. If anything, the further from speaking tones a singer gets, the less it feels to me like the product of a human being. And I thought the whole point of putting them on stage acting out stories was because they’re human beings!

But I do have a good deal of respect for the way the libretto is written. Its ambitions in terms of psychological subtlety are admirable. Opera usually offers only the biggest, dumbest sort of emotions. Here the camera seems to be in a bit closer on the characters; the work tries to register real social relationships and not just plotted relationships. At least, when it’s convenient to do so. It’s a little erratic.

Also, as mentioned, no matter how open and sympathetic and grown-up you are, it’s very hard to watch the lovers interacting and not be constantly thinking, “but that’s not a man!” So that tends to takes some of the edge off it.

There are one or two reasonably catchy waltz melodies in there, which would seem to be the main reason that this opera is such a perennial favorite; rather silly considering the huge ratio of everything-else to catchy-waltz in the score. In 3 though the everything-else may be. For my part, I think Strauss’s leitmotifs are better material than his “tunes,” but he rarely puts them to really satisfying musical ends, so despite all the interesting melodies, you still end up waiting eagerly for the moment when a character sings two-fifths of an actual song. “Mit mir” is a pretty amusing little number, I’ll admit.

I still have, pushed to a burner so far back that it may have fallen off the stove entirely, a potential entry about John Williams and movie music that I started writing three years ago. Listening to Rosenkavalier I was struck by how this is the source for so many aspects of the Hollywood school of composition; orchestrally, harmonically, motivically, and representationally. It has both the sound and the spirit, even superficially: Octavian’s theme is like Indiana Jones’s German cousin. I already knew that Strauss’s orchestra was a big part of the Hollywood sound, but previously I only knew his tone poems; what was most striking here is how his dramatic technique (which I was impugning above) was also carried over into film. Film scores, as with Rosenkavalier, are not made up of self-contained formal pieces of music – they are just butter spread over the length of a work, like a long mural. This technique creates its own characteristic sense of not-quite-form, which is what that other entry was going to be about, and which is what I recognized here.

There is genius in there, and there’s maybe a brilliant opera in there too, but it’s strutting around affectedly in a giant, nerdy, obnoxious marshmallow suit. If you can picture that.

Gonna break this up with some art. Here’s a link to a painting of the original production – looks like the end of Act II. And here below is a photo of the “presentation of the rose” scene in the original production. I bet it looked better than this in person.


Dubal’s recommended recordings were Karajan and Bernstein. I couldn’t find copies of the Bernstein, though I’d still be interested to hear it. The Karajan was fine, but it’s the top pick because of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, I think, and I’m not one of these people for whom singing voices are the principal consideration. Tempi matter more to me, in a way. The one I ended up putting in the most time with was the Solti recording, which is the 1001 Classical Recordings pick. I listened to it several times – well, acts one and two and the very end of act three. There’s a chunk in there, when the police show up, that I just couldn’t make myself care about, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I watched the Solti 1985 DVD all the way through; the Kleiber 1994 DVD I didn’t make time for more than the first 20 minutes before I had to return it to the library. In those 20 minutes, though, it seemed like it might be slightly better.

The piano-vocal score, online. The full score is more interesting but nobody seems to have posted it yet.

Enough with this entry! This has been rotting here forEVER. A year, I think. I know, it’s completely overgrown and dull. But if you think it’s tedious, think how I feel. Ugh. I really need to make the process of listening, writing, and posting much faster. Like, I should post my thoughts about a thing as soon as I have those thoughts, which usually are the day I encounter the thing. Not a year later, out of a sense of ingrown obligation, after it’s all had time to fester and get boring. Not even google cares at this point. Sorry, google robots, to make you read all this.

Kiri Te Kanawa (Marschallin), Aage Haugland (Ochs), Anne Howells (Octavian), Barbara Bonney (Sophie)
The Royal Opera, Covent Garden / Georg Solti. Stage production directed by John Schlesinger. Kultur 2029. 1985.

Felicity Lott (Marschallin), Kurt Moll (Ochs), Anne Sofie von Otter (Octavian), Barbara Bonney (Sophie)
Vienna State Opera / Carlos Kleiber. Based on a stage production by Otto Schenk. Deutsche Grammophon NTSC 073 0089. 1994.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Marschallin), Otto Edelmann (Ochs), Christa Ludwig (Octavian), Teresa Stich-Randall (Sophie)
Philharmonia Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan. EMI 5 56113 2. 1956.

Kiri Te Kanawa (Marschallin), Kurt Rydl (Ochs), Anne Sofie Von Otter (Octavian), Barbara Hendricks (Sophie)
Staatskapelle Dresden / Bernard Haitink. EMI 7 54259 2. 1990.

Regine Crespin (Marschallin), Manfred Jungwirth (Ochs), Yvonne Minton (Octavian), Helen Donath (Sophie)
Wiener Philharmoniker / Georg Solti. Decca 417 493-2. 1968.

Highlights (in English):
Yvonne Kenny (Marschallin), John Tomlinson (Ochs), Diana Montague (Octavian), Rosemary Joshua (Sophie).
London Philharmonic Orchestra / David Parry. Chandos CHAN 9302. 1998.

Wiener Philharmoniker / Christian Thielemann. Deutsche Grammophon 469 519-2. 2000.

December 14, 2008

Disney Canon #14: Peter Pan (1953)


ADAM This might be my new favorite.

BETH I liked it a lot.

BROOM I did too.

ADAM It was awesome.

BETH That dog is amazing.

BROOM The dog is amazing?

BETH It’s taking care of those kids.

BROOM That is remarkable.

BETH I just said that because I thought it would be funny to say that.

ADAM The remarkable thing about the movie is that it makes both childhood and adulthood seem unappealing, but does so in a way that’s totally charming. Well, maybe not “unappealing,” but they’re both mixed bags, like life is. It does not feel like a fairy tale.

BETH That’s true. Neither is presented as better; neither is presented as the obvious choice.

BROOM I was waiting for the moment when they would stab me in the heart with the fact that my childhood was gone, but they never did it. I think they intentionally avoided telling the adults in the audience “you’re in the bad part of your lives, now,” or telling children that growing up is for losers.

ADAM It’s too easy to do that. As Hook does unabashedly.

BROOM As I was saying earlier, I saw the beginning of Hook the other day, but I don’t remember exactly how it ends. You said it ends with him throwing away his cell phone? But he does go back to being a father again; it doesn’t with him actually choosing childhood over adulthood.

ADAM Yeah, but it’s about being a childlike father.

BROOM Wouldn’t you say that this Peter Pan was also saying that it’s good to remember your childhood and not be a grouch?

ADAM Yes. But being a child here seemed chaotic, alternately fun and depressing, which is what it is like to be a child.

BROOM It seems like we’re all in agreement that the correct way to talk about this movie is in terms of allegory about childhood and adulthood. As a kid I didn’t like the Peter Pan story very much, and I didn’t like this movie very much, because –

ADAM He’s a dick.

BETH He’s a show-off.

BROOM No, because who is he and why do I care about him? And more to the point, what is Neverland? There are pirates there, and Indians, and boys wearing animal costumes, and mermaids. It seemed arbitrary, like a grab-bag of stuff. Which is in fact the point; it’s supposed to suggest the imaginations of children, who have He-Man fight Superman. They just mix stuff up. Neverland is a place where Indians and mermaids live. But as a kid, I just thought, “why is this movie giving me this mish-mash? There’s no specific fantasy there for me to get into.” Now, as an adult, I can appreciate that the whole thing suggests childhood.

BETH Well, those things, Indians and pirates – particularly Indians – are specific to the fifties.

BROOM But they come, I believe, from the original material, from the turn of the century.

BETH Really? The Indians too?

BROOM I think to British children, American Indians are all the more exotic.

ADAM I think it was all, you know, savagery in its most delightful forms. And it is pretty delightful.

BROOM As I’m saying, I enjoyed it now. But as a kid I didn’t understand what it was supposed to add up to. I think it only makes sense at a remove from childhood, because it’s a depiction of childhood as seen by adults.

ADAM I imagine I would have felt resentful of Peter Pan as a child, because he was effortlessly cooler than I could ever be. But I also probably would have had a crush on Peter Pan. I think this is the first Disney character on whom we could legitimately have a romantic crush.

BROOM I don’t know about that, man.

BETH I didn’t really like him.

BROOM I didn’t even see him as “cool.” I don’t think the concept of “cool” plays into this movie.

BETH He was like the kid at school who tried to get everyone to laugh at him.

ADAM And did! Everyone wanted to be his friend, and all the girls all wanted to nuzzle with him!

BETH Well, I never liked those kids.

BROOM He embodies a perfect child-charisma – he’s the “spirit of youth,” or whatever she says at the beginning – but what kind of person is he actually?

BETH He’s a hero; he saves damsels in distress pretty frequently.

BROOM Yeah, but just because it’s what there is to do. He always shows that he doesn’t care about anything. “Yeah, okay, I guess I’ll let you go.” “You’re banished forever! Okay, for a week then.”

BETH Well, he’s a kid.

ADAM He’s thoughtless.

BROOM He’s just the spirit of childhood, which is not actually something I have a crush on, Adam. Perv.

ADAM I would have, as a child, had a crush on him.

BROOM A charisma crush. A friend crush.


BROOM He’s got pointed ears; he’s not even human.

ADAM He does still have a trace of “Casey at the Bat” face.

BETH His face is not cute. He has no nose.

BROOM He’s an imp; he’s not supposed to be “cute.” You just have a crush on force of personality.

ADAM Well, that’s true. But it’s a particularly boyish, male force of personality. This would have been a better movie than Alice in Wonderland to watch with Mike.

BROOM I would have been interested to hear what Mike had to say about this, actually. But let’s segue from that into the sexual politics, which were clearly part of the movie, and yet I’m not sure I could summarize what they were. Female jealousy was a big part of the plot. Tinkerbell has an apparently sexual sense of possessiveness of Peter Pan.

BETH And then later Wendy does too.

ADAM Well, she can’t help herself. Even though she knows better.

BROOM But Wendy is apparently pre-sexual. There’s nothing flirtatious about her interaction with Peter at all. But she wants to give him a kiss. I didn’t really understand where in her development she is.

ADAM It’s not like she wants to have sex with him; she just wants him to treat her more specially than the other girls.

BETH Right.

BROOM But then there are mermaids, who are all about being sex objects. They have crushes on Peter Pan, who seems immune to their charms. He just likes attention. And then they’re jealous of Wendy, who doesn’t understand why. Or maybe she does; I don’t know what she understands.

BETH I think Wendy is in that nebulous place between girlhood and adulthood. She’s like Britney Spears. “Not yet a woman…” – what is it?

BROOM “No longer a girl…”? [ed.: “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”]

ADAM I thought the sexual politics were pretty subtle and interesting. It was both totally sexist but also about the electric interaction of men and women. Women are seen as civilizing but also… It seemed a little like a Katherine Heigl role.

BROOM I haven’t seen any of those movies.

ADAM I didn’t see Knocked Up, but I gather that this is essentially how Knocked Up works, plot-wise.

BROOM This is how Knocked Up works plot-wise?

ADAM The interactions. Did you see Superbad?


ADAM Well, then this won’t mean anything to you. You know, it’s all about these boastful but insecure slobby boys. At the end, they meet the girls they have crushes on at the mall, and they go off with the respective girls, but they cast a backward look over their shoulders at each other. They want to go off with these girls, but they’re conflicted about it. And an intrinsic part of growing up is becoming sexualized and leaving your playmates for your mates.

BROOM We saw exactly that in Bambi.


BROOM But here that never happened. They’re not at that stage yet.

ADAM They’re not quite there yet, but we know they’ll get there. As Wendy says, they’re “just not quite ready yet.”

BROOM When Wendy is awakened from bed by a boy, and then they’re eagerly talking together in her bedroom in the middle of the night, and she tells this boy she wants to give him a kiss, it’s almost confused. Who does she think he is, that she wants to give him a kiss? And who does he think she is, that he doesn’t want anything from her but still wants to show her around? Their relationship to each other is abstracted. She loves the idea of Peter Pan, but up until then she thought he was just someone to tell stories about.

BETH Well, that’s like, you know, Davy Jones appearing in your bedroom. You’d say, “Oh! It’s you! Can I kiss you?”

ADAM Davy Jones??

BETH Davy Jones from the Monkees.


BROOM You thought she meant the locker owner?

ADAM I was confused. Yes, it is a lot like that. It’s like the Jonas Brothers appeared in your bedroom. For our younger blog readers.

BROOM Her fantasy about Peter Pan is just that she’d get to talk to him. And then when he does appear, he immediately starts saying sexist stuff to her – “girls talk too much!”

ADAM And she sort of takes it – as you would, as a girl at that age in the presence of a charismatic boy – but she sort of doesn’t. She seems to vacillate between those things. You can understand; she takes these sexist barbs, but you can tell that she resents them.

BROOM What do you make of the fact that sexual roles are a recurring element in the “red man” scene? We can talk about the rest of the scene in a minute. I mean, the racist elements of the scene are so ridiculous and obvious they hardly need to be talked about.

ADAM They’re incidental.

BROOM They’re incidental to the fact that the real point of the scene is that the squaw keeps telling Wendy that she can’t participate in this kind of fun.

ADAM And the movie doesn’t really disagree with that.

BROOM Is the idea that she’s more grown up than these boys, and that she has responsibilities in the adult world, while they’re having this childish sort of fun? Or is that she’s a woman and will never be able to have fun? What does it mean?

BETH All of the men were having that sort of fun. It wasn’t just the boys.

BROOM Well, the Indian men were not mature beings.

BETH Who knows what they were? They weren’t really characters. That Indian woman wasn’t partying either; she was just standing around giving orders.

BROOM And then in the middle of that song, we see the sexy young Indian girl and then the mother-in-law who’s a hag, and “that’s the first time the red man said ‘ugh,'” – which, as Adam said, is typical fifties humor – but it’s also about whether or not women really fit into that society. That scene as a whole sends a weird series of signals. I mean, I know they didn’t think about it quite that seriously – this is all the sort of stuff that if someone were saying it, I’d want to say, “It’s a Disney movie!”

ADAM But Disney movies teach us how to be men and women, as much as anything does.

BROOM And that’s clearly the correct way to talk about Bambi. Yes, this movie clearly thought about these issues, at some level. This was definitely the most sophisticated script so far.

ADAM Yes. It was ambiguous. And it really packed a lot of adventure into seventy-five minutes.

BETH I thought that too. Things just kept happening.

ADAM There was not a dull moment in this movie.

BROOM There was also, notably, nothing at all artsy in it. And the fact that it was so successful on its own terms while totally eschewing that stuff – no pink elephants, no falling down a rabbit hole, no ballets, nothing abstract – probably set the tone for the direction they’re going to go after this. Because they nailed this, which didn’t incorporate any of that aspect of aesthetic ambition.

BETH Maybe I’m wrong, but why is this movie not more popular? Is it popular? It seems like we’ve all seen it just once. It’s not a “beloved favorite.”

BROOM I remember seeing it in middle school on one of the occasions that our neglectful chorus teacher just had us watch a movie, and being shocked by the “Red Man” song, and thinking, “did I really ever see this as a kid?” And I’m honestly not sure I ever did. But that was definitely the last time I had seen it.

ADAM Yeah, I assume that scene makes it unsalvageable. It’s too much to just cut it out like the negro unicorns.

BROOM I don’t think I’d want my kids watching this one.

BETH Until they were how old?

BROOM I don’t know. A little older.


BROOM It’s emotionally inapplicable for a little kid. This goes back to my comment from before that when I was a kid I asked “who is Peter Pan? Why should I like him? Why should I like pirates and Indians and things that don’t go together?” It’s young-adult content, but presented like it’s for seven-year-olds. So there’s a mismatch there.

ADAM I think this may be the first Disney cartoon in which we are shown a murder.

BROOM When he shot that guy, you could sort of feel the Disney studio winding up in anticipation – “get ready, folks… is he really going to shoot a guy?… Yes he is!” Though it is off screen. There’s also a shooting death in Bambi of course, but that’s traumatic. This was a completely comic, pointless murder. And there was lots of throwing of knives directly at the faces of the characters.

ADAM And when they almost kill Wendy, because Tinkerbell the jealous bitch has lied to them.

BROOM Tinkerbell is not a sympathetic character at any point in the movie – except that she throws the bomb away from Peter Pan. But only because she wants to keep him for her own. Her love for him is not admirable.

ADAM She’s like a Bond female villain.

BROOM And she’s clearly one of these pin-up drawing bodies.

BETH But she has that moment of thinking she’s too fat.

BROOM Several times she’s not happy about her butt. She stands on a mirror and thinks her butt is too big. But her butt has clearly been drawn with loving attention by some animator. When she gets stuck in the keyhole, we just happen to see her underpants and the crease of her buttocks.

ADAM It’s upsetting to me that she is the only character from this movie that Disney has seen fit to market, and that they’re marketing her as the “bad girl” – you know, as the next stage of the princess fixation.

BROOM She’s as close to a Bratz as they’ve got. She’s an oversexed girl with no maturity.

BETH But who is she having sex with? No one.

BROOM She doesn’t have anything to do with the actual act of sex; she’s just sexual and sexually possessive. Of Peter Pan, who’s oblivious. She’s Daisy Mae to his Lil’ Abner.

ADAM It’s a depressing statement about both maleness and femaleness, in the same way that it’s a depressing statement about both childhood and adulthood. But at the same time, there’s something resonant about it.

BROOM Beth and I were having a conversation about Cinderella after our recorded conversation, about the fact that Cinderella was telling people how to be 50s people; that the greater materialism in the movie, the emphasis on the dress, was a specifically 50s thing, and 40s kids wouldn’t have felt that in the same way.

ADAM Whereas this was totally unmaterialistic.

BROOM It wasn’t materialistic, yet it was still “totally 50s,” as you said at one point about some joke. Do you feel like the sexual dynamics and the childhood/adulthood dynamics – the movie’s idea of what it means to be a person – has dated? Because even though it felt so 50s, I can’t identify any aspect of it except for the obvious racism –

ADAM And sexism.

BROOM Yes. Which of course are big and serious issues; they’re why I wouldn’t want to show it to too young a kid. But do you feel like what it was saying about life, beyond that, was limited to a certain era in the American psyche?


BETH No, I don’t think so.

ADAM I thought it was very penetrating.

BROOM In the moment when the father said, “you’re going to grow up; you’re going to have your own bedroom,” I was struck by that being surprisingly real. “Oh yeah, there actually is a moment when you suddenly grow up.”

ADAM The father’s not a very sympathetic spokesperson for growing up, but the mother is.

BETH And their house is!

BROOM And what does it mean that they’re being raised by a dog? The world of fantasy only comes to life after they go to sleep – the whole thing is clearly Wendy’s dream – but the dog really is their Nana!

ADAM But the father understands that that’s a little improper, because he says to Nana that, “you know, you’re a dog.” Can we talk about the gay domestic violence aspect of the movie?

BROOM Let me try to figure out what he’s talking about!

ADAM Namely the relationship between Smee and Captain Hook. It seemed to me an early prototype for what would be parodied in the Smithers-Mr. Burns relationship.

BROOM I get what Smithers-Mr. Burns is a joke about, but I saw Smee and Captain Hook as totally sexless.

ADAM Well, of course they’re sexless. But the joke of Mr. Burns and Smithers is that it makes explicit what’s here an unacknowledged joke.

BROOM But Mr. Smee does not adore Captain Hook. He would rather not be caught up in his plans.

ADAM I think he’s overwhelmed by him. You know, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

BROOM I don’t know about that. I think he’s a simpleton and he really would rather just go back to business as usual. He’s like Sancho. This relationship is really Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, which I guess you could say is the prototype for the Smithers-Burns gay joke, but it’s really “I like being around a powerful guy, but this is ridiculous.”

ADAM “You’ve gone too far this time.”

BROOM He keeps saying “Why can’t we go back to sea? Why do we have to be obsessed with killing Peter Pan?” And he’s a drunk.

ADAM He’s not a gay role model.

BROOM I think he may be yet another Irishman.

ADAM But he’s a sort of waddling, effeminate Irishman.

BROOM I didn’t see him as effeminate. He’s just an idiot.

ADAM Like that first scene, where everyone else in the crew is laughing at him while he’s doing housemaid work with his ridiculous little hat.

BROOM I know he is another Sterling Holloway voice [ed. WRONG! You are confusing Sterling Holloway with Bill Thompson – the White Rabbit, as opposed to the Cheshire Cat].

ADAM I think Hook is sort of effeminate too.

BETH Hook is effeminate. He has a collection of fancy hooks.

BROOM One of them was a nutcracker. They went by so fast I didn’t get to see what the others were. I love that he plays the clavichord. Not just because it’s a joke that he’s playing with a hook, but just the idea of it, that he chooses to make it part of his seduction of Tinkerbell to punctuate himself with chords.

ADAM He is a mincing queen.

BROOM He’s genuinely good with the sword. He’s not a total sham as a threatening figure.

ADAM Neither is uncle Scar.

BROOM But Scar is a queen because his ego is tied up in being catty – no pun intended! Captain Hook isn’t like that. He doesn’t have ego that way. He has all this fine stuff, but he never really struts. Does he? He just likes to do things the proper way. “Get me my coat!”

BETH But he does seem like he has that in him.

ADAM He’s like a whimpering baby as soon as he’s touched.

BROOM Yes, he’s a fool. He’s ridiculously afraid of the crocodile.

ADAM If I didn’t already know the whole crocodile story, it would be hard to pick up. It goes by pretty fast.

BROOM Yes. Speaking of things from Peter Pan that we know about but not from this movie: the most famous thing in Peter Pan is that you, the audience, have to clap your hands to save Tinkerbell. So here we have them clearly heading toward that moment; he’s approaching her and she’s just a faintly blinking light, and he’s saying, “I care about you more than anything in the world” – and then there’s an abrupt transition back to the pirate ship, and when Peter Pan shows up, Tinkerbell is fine. Do you think they made a scene where we were supposed to clap our hands, and then decided that breaking the fourth wall for audience participation was not something they wanted to do?

ADAM She’s so unpleasant that maybe nobody would have clapped.

BETH I think it’s probably just to keep the running time down.

BROOM There’s a second disc with other material, but I don’t think we’re going to get that from Netflix. I’ll look it up to see if that scene ever existed, and then I’ll link to the page I find… right here. [Sorry, no link; I can’t find anything conclusive. The commentary on the DVD at that point has one of the animators saying that when he saw the 1924 Peter Pan as a kid, he thought it was stupid and embarrassing that they tried to get the audience to clap, and wanted to see what would happen if they let Tinkerbell die.]

ADAM Okay, I’m gonna walk back some of my “Captain Hook is totally effeminate,” because you’re right, he’s more of a dictatorial bully than he is a… you know, mincing dictatorial bully. Maybe I’m just hypersensitive to anything gay.

BROOM Don’t get me wrong: I love this stuff, I love saying that and joking about it. I just don’t get it from them.

ADAM I just thought it was latent in there, but maybe it’s less latent than I’m saying.

BROOM If there were going to be gay characters in this movie, it would be them. But I didn’t get those signals.

ADAM Well, the mermaids, maybe. You know, “Things are getting interesting.”

BROOM One of those three mermaids was a lesbian. She was just playing along so that she’d be accepted by her friends. The blonde mermaid actually has a secret crush on the brunette mermaid. Something I liked about the movie: I keep critiquing how well they do humans, and I thought that Wendy in particular was the best human they’ve done yet, bar none.

BETH She looked really good. Though she looked a little bit older than I think she was supposed to be.

BROOM Well, it was Alice in Wonderland two years later. I believe it was the same actress.

ADAM John and Michael looked good too. Michael was genuinely cute.

BROOM You kept giggling at his cute lines as though he were an actual child.

BETH He was very cute.

BROOM He was. And the conceit of John being a proper English boy was enjoyable.

BETH Like Harry Potter.

BROOM Like Harry Potter, but even moreso, to the point of it being a joke.

ADAM He’s a little bit of a Percy Weasley type. But he has a good heart. I guess Percy Weasley ultimately has a good heart.

BROOM Percy Weasley would have signed on with the pirates.

BETH True.

BROOM Not only were the people animated better, but the storyboarding and staging – such that slapstick and mayhem became the means by which the plot was forwarded – was better here than anywhere before. I said about Cinderella that the king and his assistant had slapstick staging that I liked, but that there was still a lot of boring staging with the sisters. where they just stood and talked. Here, every scene somehow was conveyed in a hugely kinetic way.

ADAM You chuckled at Captain Hook being pursued by the crocodile, which was pretty obvious but still well done. It was actually suspenseful whether he was going to get eaten.

BROOM There a couple clever bits with the crocodile, where they went for that comic third beat. They’d do something twice, and then they’d go for that extra third one, which felt like a contemporary sense of humor. There were all sorts of satisfying visual choices, like when Captain Hook screams and his face fills the whole screen, or when he’s pointing at the watch and it’s slowly moving toward the camera.

ADAM In an earlier movie, when they had Wendy singing to the boys, it would have just been Wendy singing to the boys, and the whole plot would have slowed down. Here you get that, but you also get the pirates sneaking up on them, at the same time. They manage to interweave those by having Smee crying about his mother, and it’s more satisfying.

BROOM I think that song was maybe my least favorite part of the movie. It seemed like it had originally been designed to be another “Baby Mine,” an attempt to get everyone to cry about mothers, but then they second-guessed it and put other stuff in. Now nobody would cry at it; the scene doesn’t let you cry. So then you wonder, why do we have to listen to this soggy song? I understand that it serves the function of revealing that the children all do want to go back to the world where they’re going to grow up.

ADAM And it makes the Lost Boys into people. It complicates them.

BROOM Thematically, it gives them all a moment where they actually make the decision that they are okay with growing up. Peter Pan says, “if you leave, you’re going to grow up and you’re never going to be allowed to come back,” and they say, “okay,” and go up the stairs and he doesn’t. But it’s not that great a song. I like the other songs, though. I like “You Can Fly.” I sometimes find myself singing it.

ADAM Yes. There’s a moment in it where the music precipitously as they plunge down, and it’s totally effective. My heart sort of dropped with it.

BROOM There are a couple of things in the song’s arrangement that move me that way. The swoops are one of them. Another is that every time they get to a certain place in the melody, the tempo gets a little push, which really gets you in the pit of your stomach. “Think of all the joy you’ll find / when you leave the world behind / and bid your cares goodbye!” – on that phrase the tempo jumps up in excitement. When I was a kid, on the video that we had, of a Disney Christmas special or something that used this clip, the tape was damaged right at the high point. “And bid your cares goodbye…You can flyyRRR” – the tape was suddenly distorted and turned into something else. So when I get there now, it feels especially peaceful and free, like floating in the air, that it doesn’t happen. Because I was trained to expect the dream to get ground up at that point.

ADAM The visuals in that sequence, although they’re not self-consciously poetic, are really very pretty and satisfying.

BROOM The backgrounds throughout are really atmospheric, but not in an aggressive way that makes you think about art. And, you know, I love it when they go artsy, so I’m a little sad that them doing this so well means that they won’t go in that direction very much anymore. Mary Blair is not going to get any more showpieces like she did with the little train back in Three Caballeros. Although here there were a couple slightly stylized shots, like when Captain Hook and Smee are rowing along the horizon, and there are flat, abstracted outcroppings coming out of the water, and the sun is just a big circle.

ADAM Is this where all of our ideas about pirates come from? Like, the idea of pirates hiding out in a rock shaped like a skull?

BROOM Well, I know that Disney’s Treasure Island live-action film came out in 1950.

BETH And what about Pirates of the Carribean, the ride?

BROOM When was Disneyland built? 1954? [Ed.: Yes.]

BETH Something like that.

BROOM Not yet, then. It had probably been designed but not built.

BETH Because I think that’s where a lot of my conceptions about pirates come from.

BROOM This movie does seem sort of contemporaneous with Disneyland. All the stuff in this movie felt in keeping with the spirit of Disney as you experience it at the Land.

BETH It’s 50s-y.

BROOM Well, early 50s-y. Because our next two movies are Lady and the Tramp

ADAM Which is nowhere represented in Disneyland.

BROOM …which is, I think, an urbane romantic comedy compared to this – though I may be wrong, since I hardly remember anything about it – and then Sleeping Beauty, which is a big stylish Cinemascope spectacular. And then something happened, I guess, because they get smaller-scale after that. But in any case, they don’t really have this sort of family toy chest feeling, which Disneyland does.

ADAM Well, don’t they sort of run out of fairy tales to tell? I know this isn’t really a fairy tale.

BROOM Well, it’s a meta- fairy tale. It actually suits them very well, because built into it are the issues we’ve been talking about: What are fairy tales for? What is childhood for? The story is about real children being taken inside the fairy tale they would tell.

[we read Bosley Crowther’s review (and then marvel at pictures of the old Roxy Theatre)]

BROOM Anything to say about Bosley’s opinion of Peter Pan?

ADAM That it’s wrong!

BROOM I think he does it a disservice.

BETH Yeah. It seems like maybe he was just in a bad mood that day.

ADAM Or had some attachment to the play that we don’t.

BROOM He does seem, in many of these reviews, as though he feels a serious obligation to his readers to make sure they understand whether or not they are going to see a faithful adaptation of the source material.

ADAM Sorry, Bosley, but the source material has been completely supplanted by the Disney version. In all cases! So, ha ha ha!

BROOM And I disagreed with his assessment of the animation of Wendy and the boys as being merely good compared to other characters. Although it’s in keeping with his earlier opinion of Bambi, that the more accurately lifelike the animators get, the less they are true to their art. He doesn’t like it when they get too realistic.

ADAM Well, I thought this was deeply satisfying. And thought-provoking, and subtle.

BROOM Every time I say that I liked it, I feel odd, knowing that this is the less aesthetically ambitious branch of the Disney studios’ work, and it basically is the end of the other branch. I don’t think there are going to be any more dream sequences that take place in fantasy space. They just don’t do that. They hardly even do it in the shorts, after the 50s.

ADAM Well, the aesthetic ambition will come back in a big way in 1991.

BROOM You mean with The Little Mermaid? I don’t think so. I think you’ll be surprised at how The Little Mermaid looks to you now.

ADAM Maybe Little Mermaid doesn’t look so good, but Beauty and the Beast looks pretty good, and The Lion King looks pretty good.

BETH I don’t have any attachment to those movies.

ADAM And you will be charmed by the Fragonard-inspired Rapunzel.

BROOM You’re telling me! But first we gotta see Bolt. Not to mention Meet the Robinsons, which we just saw the preview for. Not to mention Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Atlantis: The Lost Empire

ADAM Beth is planning to quit before that.

BETH I’m planning to opt out.

BROOM NO! NO! NO! We’re in this together!

ADAM Good night, one and all.


December 3, 2008

9. 辣手神探 (1992)

directed by John Woo
story by John Woo
screenplay by Barry Wong

Criterion Collection #9: Hard-Boiled. Or Hard Boiled without the hyphen. Depends who you ask.

辣 = laat = hot/cruel
手 = sau = hand
[辣手 = ruthless]
神 = san = god
探 = taam = detective

Laat sau san taam = “Ruthless Supercop” – though you’ll frequently see this given as “Hot-Handed God of Cops” which is really silly. According to wikipedia, the title is intentionally identical to the first part of the Chinese title of Dirty Harry, 辣手神探夺命枪, which they give as the asyntactic “Hot-Handed God of Cops Killer Gun.” Better would be “Ruthless Supercop’s Deadly Gun,” I guess. Or, if you prefer, “Dirty Harry.”

Immediately it is clear that this film is superior to The Killer. That’s not the general opinion but it’s mine. I can enjoy this movie much more easily than The Killer because it never lets up enough to have to get anything right. It doesn’t have to know anything about anything – that’s the downfall of movies like this. Your challenge, Mr. Woo, is to fill your allotted 90 minutes with only things you care about. Those include: jumping back in slow motion with a gun in each hand. Those do not include: people. In The Killer, not nearly enough screen time was spastic. Here we come closer.

Both of these movies remind me of the movies I would make with the family video camera when I was about 13: absolutely every shot is an obligation to be awesome. Woo never fails to reveal the epic intensity of, say, walking down a hallway. The moviemaking reminds me of my imagination at an even younger age, when I was always straining to find ways that mundane moments could seem loaded and thrilling – and then lazily settling for whatever presented itself. I would become fixated on some silly little kinetic event I could rig up – like a paper cup falling off a table – and then would imagine it invested with hugely suspenseful significance. When this cup falls off the table, a man is going to die, and he’s watching as it rolls closer and closer… oh no! oh no! there it goes NOOOO! IN SLOW MOTION!!!! NOOOOO!!!!

Or even just turning the pages of a book, if I slowed it down enough and gave it imaginary foreboding in my mind, could start to seem like something out of some kind of intense, Hitchcockian movie. Oh my god when he gets to the next page a guy’s going to die NOOOOO!

Well, that very scene happens in Hard Boiled. And it’s everything a fourth-grader would want it to be.

But this is not actually good enough. It might sound like I’m saying John Woo has stayed true to a childlike exuberance. I’m not saying that. I’m saying it seems like a fourth-grader made this movie. I don’t see any reason why John Woo couldn’t maintain those enthusiasms yet have the discrimination of an adult, the self-discipline to admit that, actually, a paper cup falling off a table just isn’t really cool.

Okay, enough of this sort of talk. It sounds like I don’t get it. But no, I really do. I get it. The movie is trash cinema and its admirers love it that way. It’s a “flick.” It’s fun because it’s all secondhand – or, really, threehundredthhand – and it’s been made by and for people who are just there for junk food served hot; your way, right away. These action scenes weren’t made to reflect the human condition; they were made to top other action scenes from other movies. Like when every opera had to have a revenge aria and a love aria and a ballet because that was just what was expected; the audience has flopped itself down at the great cultural diner and ordered “the usual.” The movie isn’t trying to impress us with artistry or ingredients; it just wants us to say “holy moley look how many fries they piled on there this time! Goddamn I love fries.” The quality of the food is beside the point – I mean, I guess it’s fine here, but we don’t really notice anymore. We just like this place for the atmosphere, and because everybody knows our name.

So all I can say is: this Chinese diner is crazy. They put the pickle IN the soup, and the burger came with TEN patties.

Or, slightly to the side of that silly metaphor: Watching these movies has been like heeding the word-of-mouth hype about a fast-food burger place, off the beaten path, that you absolutely have to try. You finally go and… yeah, maybe that’s better than other fast-food burgers. Or… maybe it isn’t. Hard to tell because it’s just a fast-food burger. Now you have to run back through your memory to remember who those people were gave you this recommendation. It was… oh yeah, The Criterion Collection. Well, everybody’s entitled. But will The Criterion Collection take my recommendations of, say, old Commodore 64 games? Probably not.

I would be remiss, though, if I did not concede that there are a really tremendous number of fries on there. You will not want for fries. The body count in this movie is incredible. Stuff blows up and people get shot with heartfelt fourth-grade inventiveness that never ever wavers. The entire second half of the movie, in a sense, is a single Die Hard-like sequence of escalating blow-up-itude. It does not let itself down. And a movie really living up to its own standards, whatever they are, can in itself be a satisfying thing.

Well, wow, now I’ve listened to the commentary track and I’m not sure I get it after all. I mean, I’m still sure, but I had to have a crisis of conscience first. These guys do not agree with what I said above. Or, wait, do they?

No question it’s an interesting listen. We have auteur John Woo himself, producer Terence Chang, critic Dave Kehr (now of the New York Times), and last but not least, Roger Avary, the guy who co-wrote Pulp Fiction and directed The Rules of Attraction and Killing Zoe – here, recorded in 1993, representing the Quentin Tarantino video store clerk contingent at the height of its relevance.

The commentary track is sort of like Being There. John Woo sounds very much like a guy who might make this movie, saying stuff like “I had Tequila shoot this tiny target from across the room so that at the end, when he shoots the bad guy through the eye, it’s credible,” and Chang corroborates the impression that the shoot mostly consisted of discussions about how much explosive to use and where to put it. Surrounding them, though, you have on the one hand Dave Kehr comparing Woo to Orson Welles and talking about the thematic depth and subtlety of his work, and in the other corner you have the geeknik, Roger Avary, excitedly noting how exhilaratingly confusing and secondhand the movie is, and declaring that such is the wave of the future.

I just invented “geeknik.”

Anyway, Dave Kehr, who seems perfectly intelligent, gave me pause. His conviction that these movies were deeply accomplished and genuinely significant – Criterion Collection-worthy, even – made me stop and reconsider my attitude. Was I being a boor and missing the boat? Was there really some kind of humanism in this? I just couldn’t see my way to it. I mean, just look! Look at the movie you’re talking about! Eventually Kehr says something that put my mind at ease: he talks about the eye-opening thrill, for American audiences, of seeing such well-worn themes and archetypes being used sincerely and “not as kitsch” – being embraced and utilized without any kind of ironic remove. Well, no question these movies are very, very sincere. But that’s exactly what real kitsch is. Manufactured camp is, no question, a depressing cultural phenomenon; let us please not conflate it with genuine camp, which is sincere and clueless. Kehr’s point seemed to be that the ridiculous sentimentality of these movies is actually redeemed and given new life because it is unafraid and heartfelt. But that’s just the slippery sincerity slope talking – you can have that same experience if you stare too long at a Hummel. There’s a sand trap there in your heart; beware! In general, though, I believe that Kehr’s real mistake was confusing impact with quality, stimulation with value. As many contemporary museum artists do. Maybe some people are comfortable with equating those things, but I stand firmly against that thinking.

Meanwhile, Roger Avary makes the whole Tarantino attitude seem shallow and confused (and also implicitly endorses my comments about The Killer) when he says that he enjoys these Hong Kong films because they are so blatantly derivative of Western cinema cliches… and that he is drawn to the blatantly derivative because his generation was born into a culture surrounded by prior culture… and that he and his ilk are therefore inclined to create cinema defined by its references and relations to existing cinema. But this is a superficial parallel drawn between two cultures with very different problems. America is coughing its way through soul-stifling inundation with its own accumulated cultural pile-up – anxiety of influence on a massive scale. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is using this stuff in a totally different socio-psychological way: it wants to be famous and lucky, like the West, and thereby save itself. The movies in question are aspirationally derivative, because the East is naively trying to remake itself in the West’s image, but better. Quentin and Roger’s movies, on the other hand, are willfully derivative, because of America’s cultural suffocation, where exponential garden-variety provincial cultural inbreeding has given way to inbreeding chic. In 90s California, fetishistic navel-gazing is IN. 1991 Hong Kong, I feel certain, knows no such phenomenon.

I guess I will concede the basic point being made by these admirers of the movie, which is that when you watch it, you are impressed by its spirit and energy. But that can mean so many things. I was impressed with it as one is impressed with a child who wears a Power Rangers costume, with mask, out to dinner. “How peculiar it must be to be you!” you think. “If you weren’t like this, I would never get to see this crazy thing I’m seeing.” Is that really enough? That’s the appeal of “outsider art,” but this isn’t outsider art – this is a product of mass culture for a mass audience. But mass culture can get pretty crazy. I would show this movie at a party.

And that reminds me of one last comment I wanted to make. These two movies were the sort of thing that other kids somehow saw. Kids who were less attentively parented than I. But occasionally those things crept in anyway, at sleepovers and other unchaperoned parties. To me these movies were evocative of middle school sleepovers, of my fleeting encounters with the world of things that people who thought I was lame thought were cool. Things that made me feel morally itchy. I have a friend who told me that when she was younger, her parents were not opposed to her seeing sex or violence per se, but that they attempted to protect her from movies with “a seedy worldview.” Yes.

At heart, these movies do not actually have a truly seedy worldview, but they very much want to, which makes them perfect fare for kids who are looking to get a sense of worldliness from something forbidden. Somewhere online I found a comment, surely (hopefully) from a seventh-grader, to the effect that Hard Boiled is way more hardcore and awesome than other action movies because there is so much spurting blood and so many innocent bystanders get killed. To the movie’s way of thinking – and Dave Kehr’s, I guess – that’s actually what makes it so sad. But the movie is in profound agreement with the kids at the sleepover party that it is also hardcore, and so it is well suited to them.

These days, it seems like whenever I see an anonymous bad guy get riddled with bullets and flop over, some kind of prudish widower in my soul perversely insists that I think about his life up to that point, his relatives, his individual personality, the fact that he probably didn’t expect that would be the last day of his life, etc. etc. (This is the same smug parade-raining jerk who makes me look everywhere but at the trick when watching magicians. Dammit.) So I sort of imagined that my younger self would have been horrified and upset by these movies. But Star Wars is full of guys getting casually killed and flopping over, and I cheerfully watched those movies over and over as a kid. So this might not have bothered me as much as I imagine, in retrospect, that it would have. In any case, I was never at this particular sleepover. By 1993 I guess I was too old.

The Criterion disc (long out of print, but I obtained!) also contains previews for all of John Woo’s other Hong Kong films, going back to 1973. Watching the evolution of this particular brand of junk over two decades is fascinating and amusing, and certainly provides plenty of grist for the conversation about the developmental status of Asian cultural identity. And some funny subtitle translations.

Music for Hard Boiled is by jazz composer Michael Gibbs and is wonderfully typical of a genre action movie from the late eighties/early nineties. I can’t help but smile at stuff like this. I’m giving you the end titles, which is a reuse of music from earlier in the movie – a track referred to on the soundtrack album as “Red Car Boogie,” because it accompanies the first appearance of Tony Leung as he drives a red car, indicating that he is a hotshot. As for the “boogie” part – well, you can hear for yourself! Boogie on, 1992!